Rosa Luxemburg

Blanquism and Social Democracy

(June 1906)

Originally published: in Polish in Czerwony Sztandar, No.86, June 1906. [1*]
Translated: Peter Manson (from French).
This translation from Weekly Worker, No.753, 22 January 2009.
Copied with thanks from the CPGB/Weekly Worker Website.
Marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Comrade Plekhanov has published an exhaustive article in the Courrier entitled, How far does the right go?, in which he accuses the Bolsheviks of Blanquism.

It is not incumbent upon us to defend the Russian comrades upon whom comrade Plekhanov rains the blows of his erudition and dialectic. They are perfectly capable of doing so themselves. But it is worth commenting on certain remarks which our readers too will find of interest. That is why we are devoting some space to them.

In order to define Blanquism comrade Plekhanov quotes Engels on Blanqui – a French revolutionary of the 1840s, whose name is used to describe the tendency.

Engels says:

“In his political activity he was mainly a ‘man of action’, believing that a small and well organised minority, who would attempt a political stroke of force at the opportune moment, could carry the mass of the people with them by a few successes at the start and thus make a victorious revolution ...

“From Blanqui’s assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture. This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organised under the dictatorship of one or several individuals” (F. Engels, The programme of the Blanquist fugitives from the Commune, 1873). [1]

Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s comrade in arms, is undoubtedly a great authority, but whether this characteristic of Blanqui is perfectly just can still be discussed. For in 1848 Blanqui did not foresee his club [2] forming a “small minority” at all; on the contrary, in a period of powerful revolutionary upsurge, he was certain that, upon his call, the entire working people – if not in France, then at least in Paris – would rise up to fight the ignominious and criminal policies of the bourgeois government, which was trying to “steal victory from the people”.

Nevertheless, this is not the main question. What concerns us is whether, as comrade Plekhanov strives to demonstrate, Engels’ description of Blanqui can be applied to the Bolsheviks (whom comrade Plekhanov labels the “minority” moreover, because they found themselves in a minority at the reunification congress). [3]

He says exactly: “This whole description applies completely to our present minority.” And he justifies this proposition on the following basis:

“The relationship of the Blanquists with the popular masses was utopian in the sense that they had not understood the meaning of the revolutionary autonomy of the masses. According to their schemes, only the conspirators were active properly speaking, while the masses were content to support them, led by a well organised minority.”

And comrade Plekhanov affirms that this is “Blanquism’s original sin”, to which the Russian Bolshevik [4] comrades (we prefer to keep to this usual denomination) succumbed. In our opinion this reproach has not been substantiated by comrade Plekhanov. For the comparison with the members of Narodnaya Volya [5], who were effectively Blanquists, proves nothing, and the malicious remark that Zhelyabov [6], the hero and leader of Narodnaya Volya, was gifted with a sharper political instinct than the Bolshevik leader, Lenin, is in too bad taste to ponder over. For the rest, as we have said, it is not for us to go guns blazing to defend the Bolsheviks and comrade Lenin: they have not yet been flummoxed by anybody. What is important is to go to the heart of the question and ask: in the current Russian revolution is Blanquism possible? If such a tendency could only exist, could it exert some sort of influence?

We think that anyone with just a little familiarity with the present revolution [7], anyone who has had some direct contact with it, would answer this question in the negative. The difference between the situation in France in 1848 and the current situation in the Russian empire lies precisely in the fact that the relationship between the organised minority – that is, the proletarian party – and the masses is fundamentally different. In 1848, revolutionaries, in as much as they were socialists, made desperate efforts to bring socialist ideas to the masses, in order to prevent them supporting the hollow ideas of bourgeois liberalism. That socialism was precisely utopian and petty bourgeois.

Today, in Russia, things are rather different. Neither your old, rancid pedejca [8] nor the Cadet organisation, Russia’s constitutional tsarists, nor any other ‘progressive’ national bourgeois party has been able to win the broad working masses. Today those masses have gathered beneath the banner of socialism: when the revolution exploded, they rallied of their own initiative, almost spontaneously, to the red flag. And this is the best recommendation for our party. We are not going to hide the fact that in 1903 we were still only a handful and in terms of a party, in the strictest sense of the word, in terms of effectively organised comrades, we were at most several hundred; and when we came out to demonstrate only a small group of workers would join us. Today we are a party of tens of thousands.

Why the difference? Is it because we have in our party inspired leaders? Perhaps because we are so well known conspirators? Not at all. None of our leaders – that is, none of those whom the party has entrusted with responsibility – would wish to risk ridicule by inviting a comparison with Blanqui, that lion of past revolution. Few of our militants can match the old conspirators of the Blanquist club when it comes to personal radiance and capacity to organise.

How to explain our success and the failure of the Blanquists? Quite simply by the fact that the famous ‘masses’ are no longer the same. Today they are made up of working class troops fighting tsarism, of men made socialist by life itself, of men who have been nurtured on hate for the established order, of men taught by necessity to think in Marxist terms. That is the difference. It is neither the leaders nor even the ideas they produce, but the social and economic conditions which rule out a common class fight of the proletariat and bourgeoisie.

Thus, since the masses are different, since the proletariat is different, one cannot speak today of conspiratorial, Blanquist tactics. Blanqui and his heroic comrades made superhuman efforts to lead the masses towards class struggle; they did not succeed at all, because they were faced with workers who had not yet broken with the system of corporations, who were still immersed in petty bourgeois ideology.

We social democrats have a much simpler and easier task: today we need only work to direct the class struggle, which has been inflamed with inexorable necessity. The Blanquists tried to drag the masses behind them, whereas we social democrats are today pushed by the masses. The difference is great – as great as that between a sailor who strives to realign the current to his boat and one whose task is to hold the line of a boat carried by the current. The first will never have enough power and will fail in his goal, while the second must only ensure that the boat does not deviate from its route, is not broken on a reef or beached on a sandbank.

In this sense comrade Plekhanov ought not to worry about the “revolutionary autonomy of the masses”. Such autonomy exists – nothing will hold it back and all the bookish sermons on its necessity (please excuse this expression, but we are unable to think of another) will only cause those who work with, and at the heart of, the masses to smile.

We would dispute comrade Plekhanov’s reproach to the Russian comrades of the current “majority” that they have committed Blanquist errors during the revolution. It is possible that there were hints of them in the organisational draft that comrade Lenin drew up in 1902 [9], but that belongs to the past – a distant past, since today life is proceeding at a dizzying speed. These errors have been corrected by life itself and there is no danger they might recur. And we should not be afraid of the ghost of Blanquism, for it cannot be resuscitated at this time.

On the contrary, there is a danger that comrade Plekhanov and the partisans of the “minority” who fear Blanquism so much will go to the opposite extreme and ground the boat on a sandbank. We see this opposite extreme in the fact that these comrades fear above all remaining in a minority and are counting on the masses outside the proletariat. Hence the calculation favouring participation in the duma; hence the false rallying cries in the central committee directives to support the gentlemen of the Cadets [10], the attempt to revive the slogan, “Down with the bureaucratic ministry!” and other similar errors.

There is no danger that the boat will remain grounded on the sandbank: the tumultuous events of the revolution will soon carry forward the proletarian boat. But it would be a pity if we became diverted by such errors, if only for an instant.

In the same way, the notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has taken on a different meaning from before. Friedrich Engels correctly stresses that the Blanquists were not dreaming of a dictatorship of “the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution”. Today things are quite different. It is not an organisation of conspirators who “made the revolution”, who can contemplate their dictatorship. Even the Narodnaya Volya people and those who claim to be their heirs, the Socialist Revolutionaries of Russia, have long ceased to dream of such a thing.

If today the Bolshevik comrades speak of the dictatorship of the proletariat, they have never given it the old Blanquist meaning; neither have they ever made the mistake of Narodnaya Volya, which dreamt of “taking power for itself” (zachvat vlasti). On the contrary, they have affirmed that the present revolution will succeed when the proletariat – all the revolutionary class – takes possession of the state machine. The proletariat, as the most revolutionary element, will perhaps assume the role of liquidator of the old regime by “taking power for itself” in order to defeat counterrevolution and prevent the revolution being led astray by a bourgeoisie that is reactionary in its very nature. No revolution can succeed other than by the dictatorship of one class, and all the signs are that the proletariat can become this liquidator at the present time.

Clearly no social democrat falls for the illusion of the proletariat being able to maintain itself in power. If it could, it would lead to the domination of its working class ideas and it would realise socialism. But it is not strong enough at this time, for the proletariat, in the strictest sense of the word, constitutes a minority in the Russian empire. The achievement of socialism by a minority is unconditionally excluded, since the very idea of socialism excludes the domination of a minority. So, on the day of the political victory of the proletariat over tsarism, the majority will claim the power which the former has conquered.

Concretely, after the fall of tsarism, power will pass into the hands of the most revolutionary part of society, the proletariat, because the proletariat will take possession of all posts and keep watch over them until power is placed in the hands of those legally called upon to hold it – in the hands of the new government, which the Constituent [Assembly], as the legislative organ elected by the whole population, is alone able to determine. Now, it is a simple fact that it is not the proletariat that constitutes a majority in society, but the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, and that, as a consequence, it will not be the social democrats who form a majority in the Constituent, but the democratic peasants and petty bourgeois. We may lament this fact, but we will not be able to change it.

Broadly speaking, this is the situation as the Bolsheviks understand it, and all social democratic organisations and parties outside Russia itself share this vision. Where Blanquism fits into it is difficult to imagine.

To justify his claim, if only in appearance, comrade Plekhanov is obliged to take the words of Lenin and his comrades out of context. If, for our part, we wished to do the same, we would be able to demonstrate that the “Mensheviks” have recently acted like Blanquists, beginning with comrade Parvus and ending with comrade … Plekhanov! But that would be to play a sterile scholastic game. Comrade Plekhanov’s article is bitter in tone – it is full of bitterness – which is a bad thing: “When Jupiter becomes incensed, it is because Jupiter is wrong.”

It is high time to finish with such scholasticism and all this hullabaloo to identify who is a “Blanquist” and who is an “orthodox Marxist”. Rather we need to know if the tactic recommended by comrade Plekhanov and his Menshevik comrades, which aims to work through the duma as far as possible, is correct now; or, on the contrary, if the tactic we are applying, just like the Bolshevik comrades, is correct – the tactic based on the principle that the centre of gravity is situated outside the duma, in the active appearance of the popular revolutionary masses.

The Menshevik comrades have not yet been able to persuade anyone of the correctness of their views – and no-one will be persuaded any the more when they attach the Blanquist label to their opponents.


1. The article was actually published not in 1873, but on June 26 1874 in Der Volksstaat, central organ of the German Social Democratic Workers Party. See Friedrich Engels: The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Paris Commune.

2. The Société Républicaine Centrale, founded by Blanqui in February 1848.

3. The 4th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, held in May 1906.

4.Bolshevik” is, of course, the Russian for “majority”.

5. Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) was a Russian populist organisation engaging in acts of individual terrorism against tsarism.

6. Andrei Zhelyabov was responsible for the assassination of tsar Alexander II on March 13 1881.

7. The spirit and gains of the 1905 Russian Revolution were still very much in evidence at the time this article was written.

8. The term used for Polish liberal democrats.

9. Luxemburg is referring to Lenin’s What is to be done?, which she herself had criticised in a 1904 article.

10. The bourgeois liberal Constitutional Democrats, the largest duma party.

Note by Weekly Worker

1*. This is a June 1906 polemic against Georgi Plekhanov, “father of Russian Marxism” and Menshevik leader, taken from Czerwony Sztandar, paper of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. It continues our series of Rosa Luxemburg’s previously untranslated writings.

Last updated on: 8 May 2021